Comparison of the female characters in “The Ramayana”
The Ramayana is a famous Hindu epic tale written by Valmiki approximately 2000 years ago. Although the two thousand years have passed the story is still the basis for popular movies and television shows. Hundreds or even thousands of versions exist, this research is based primarily on the sections of Valmaiki text found in R.K. Narayan’s The Ramayana: A shortened modern prose version of the Indian Epic. The female protagonist is Sita who is the wife of Ramachandra (Rama) and who is also the obsessive desire of the demon, Ravana. Rama is a God descended from Vishnu who has come to earth. Brockington has explained that the themes of the Ramayana are human values and the Hindu concept of dharma (121). The epic revolves around the age old battle of good against evil.
One Thousand and One Arabian Nights contains a series of stories compiled during the Islamic Golden Age which lasted for many centuries. The stories are from many cultures but Sheherazade binds the whole volume together because she is the narrator of the stories as well as the protagonist of the novel that bookends all the text in between. The story of Sheherazade is also a narrative of good versus evil. Sheherazade is good and clever. Her patience and imagination allows good to overcome evil. Sheherazade is the narrator of all the other stories which are enfolded within her story. She tells the King Shahyar stories each night in order to save the women in his harem from execution and to save the kingdom from his madness.
Synopses of Sita’s and Sheherazade’s stories are offered below. Afterwards their experiences and characters have been compared. The female characters, Sita of the Ramayana and Sheherazade of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights share some similarities and many differences. Although they are both female protagonists each in their own epic, Sheherazade is the woman who has a character of both a heroine and a feminist.
SITA IN THE RAMAYAN
Sita has been raised in luxury as a royal princess until one day Rama wins a bow breaking contest and in doing so wins the hand of Sita in marriage. Sita is very young, in fact she is still a minor, but she chooses to marry and leave her family and regal lifestyle to join him in his forest kingdom. The marriage met Sita faced the challenges of adapting to simple forest living after her childhood spent in luxury. She was able to adapt graciously and became wife, responsible and caring spouse to Rama. And then her life was again disrupted because she was kidnapped by Ravana a terrible demon who tricked Sita into stepping past her boundary of safety. Ravana offered his love to Sita over and over on the island where he held her prisoner but she refused and patiently waited to be with Rama again. Sita has become an example of good Hindu wife, chaste, and true to her husband. She even willing to prove her fidelity by being set on fire "the classic Hindu chastity test, the ordeal of truth that Rama’s wife Sita, most famously, passes honestly." (Doniger 66).
One version of the Ramayan emphasizes that Rama does trust his wife but because the public outcry is so great and he is the representative of the people he feels he must put her chastity to the test. His brother lights the fire where Sita lies down to endure her fate. “From the heart of the flame rose the god of fire, bearing Sita, and presented her to Rama with words of blessing. Rama, now satisfied that he had established his wife’s integrity in the presecence of the world, welcomed Sita back to his arms” (Narayan, p. 149)
Yet Rama does not ever seem to be fully convinced his wife remained chaste while imprisoned by the demon. Ironically it is not Ravanna that causes Sita’s suffering but Rama who bends to the rumours within the public sphere and does not trust Sita on her word alone that she was faithful to him during her captivity.
"The textual sacrifice made was Sita's suffering at Rama's hands-- Rama's rejection of Sita after he wins her back from Ravana and his suspicion regarding her chastity because she had spent a year in Lanka as Ravana's captive. In most versions, this public scandal leads Rama to decide, without Sita's knowledge, to abandon her in the forest during her pregnancy ( Bhattacharji 1990)." (Zacharias 48).
Rama does not know at the time of his banishment of Sita that she is pregnant with his twin sons.
SHEHERAZADE IN ONE THOUSAND AND ONE ARABAIN NIGHTS
Sheherazade is a female character who is also both the narrator and the heroine in the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Codrescu points out that “Her name, Sheherezade, means 'City Woman’; she is a historical hero, a proto-feminist, and a mortal with a biography encompassed by the single word Storyteller" (97). Sheherazade begs her father to allow her to marry the insane king, Shahyar. Because King Shahyar was betrayed by his first wife and did not believe he could ever trust women again he told his Wazar “I shall behead my bride tomorrow before she can stop loving me. Fetch another young woman to me after the execution, and I shall marry again.” (Mcaughrean 5) In that way and daily procession of marriage then death, marriage then death continued until one thousand young maidens had died at the hand of the king’s executioner.
Sheherazade and Sita were both considered to be pure and to have practiced chastity. This was the case even though during the 1001 nights Sheherzade had given birth to three children. We learn with surprise "at the end of the storytelling cycle, the readers and/or listeners-together with the king-discover that Shahrazâd has given birth to three sons" (Enderwitz). Regardless of that fact she is rewarded for her courage when the king does not execute because he has fallen in love with her and she has given birth to three of his sons. The reasons given for why the King fell in love with Sheherazade are because of her “purity, virtue, and piety” (Enderwitz).
In the Ramayan Ravana had tried to convince Sita to love him but she refused and remained virtuous to her husband. The unhappy fate of Sita is mainly shown to be motivated by Rama’s insecurities as a leader "he does not really believe that Sita committed adultery, but he fears that if he does not banish her he will lose face among his subjects, who do suspect her" (Doniger 66). Sita had to undergo tests of fire to prove she remained pure yet even with proof her husband sent her into exile. According to Doniger Sita was set on fire and lived undergoing a resurrection (66). In spite of her dramatic resurrection from the test of fire Rama still banishes Sita from the kingdom. At the time of her banishment after the fire test Sitawas pregnant but Rama did not know that when he banished her. She gives birth and raises Rama’s twin sons during her exile. As adults the twin sons find their father who immediate recognizes them; he allows their mother to return and makes her Queen again. Again doubts cloud Rama’s judgement “but when he again expresses public doubts about her, she disappears forever back into the earth from which she was born" (Doniger 66). Once again Rama has rejected Sita “ostensibly for public reasons" (Doniger 189). Doniger clearly implies that the public rumours were only the excuses Rama used to try to disguise his own insecurities about Sita’s experience with Ravana.
According to Enderwitz at the end of the Arabian night’s tale in some versions, Sheherazade was executed afterall. She becomes unbearable to the king because she demonstrates that she is not only a narrator but also a rational creature with a keen understanding of human nature” giving the king a bad image" (Enderwitz). Some of Shaherzade’s observations could have been taken to show the king as a tyrant and a rabid consumer. He could not let that go unpunished therefore the king, in order “to save his face, finds himself immediately inclined to sacrifice Shahrazâd's life" (Enderwitz).
Heroine or Pawn. Sita represents chastity and wifely duty. Sita is more a pawn than a player in the battle between good and evil represented by Rama and Ravana. Her self-dignity and insistence on remaining true to her husband in the face of the demon is heroic but it is never appreciated as such in the telling of the story. “This violation or the possibility of violation is in turn a slur on Sita's virtue. Ravana's desire for Sita's beauty and his attempted violation of Sita comprise a power struggle between males, which for Sita results in a never ending trial of her virtue." (Zacharias 45).
Sheherazade represents good and she is at the forefront in the battle against evil. Suzanne Enderwitz, professor of Islamic and Arabic Studies has noted that the actions were motivated by desire in all of the characters in One Thousand and One Nights, but it is not clear that she included Sheherazade in that assessment. Sheherazade was motivated by charitable feelings to save the lives of the women King Shahriyar was executing each morning. “I wish thou woudst give me in marriage to this King Shahryar either I shall live or I shall be a ransom for the virgin daughters of Moslems and the cause of their dileverance from his hands and thine.” The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, translated by Richard F. Burton (Codrescu vii).
Communication skills. Sita was not able to use her communication abilities to convince her husband to not abandon her in the forest. On the other hand the communication skills of Sheherazade were excellent. In fact "Sheherazade . . . subverts patriarchy and brings about change by engaging in dialogue with men." (Veit-Wild and Naguschewski 10). Sheherazade uses her intelligence and her ability to pass wisdom to her listeners through storytelling to change the destiny for herself the ladies of the harem and the kingdom.
Boundaries. Sita had to stay within the boundary set by her brother-in-law, Lakshmanrekha, or suffer kidnapping by the demon Ravana. She was tricked by the demon and ended up a prisoner on his island. On the other hand Sheherazade could explore boundaries outside her reality in the stories she shared.
Both women were considered to be pure and chaste. Sita proved her faithfulness to her husband when she emerged from two tests of fire. However Sheherazade emerged after her storytelling with three children. The king and Sheherazade had not yet been married when the children were conceived but by the end the king had recovered his sanity and the two were married.
Sita never rises to the heroine status as does Shehrezade. In many ways this is unusual because Sita resisted the efforts of a demon to seduce her and has even survived burning in. But neither of these dramatic events were enough to raise her to the stature of heroine in the Hindu tale. Sheherazade on the other hand saved the lives of the harem maidens and aided the king’s recovery.
Sita was not able to communicate with Rama successfully enough to prevent her banishment and end his doubts. Sheherazade on the other hand displayed excellent communication skills which were the reason she was able to become a heroine.
Sita was given boundaries if she wanted to keep Rama’s love and for avoiding the demon but did not meet either with success. The story telling Sheherazade crossed the boundaries of her imagination into other cultures and traditions.
The hypotheses that Sheherazade has been successfully argued; she emerged both as a heroine and a feminist. Sheherazade was recognized as a heroine by her country. A job of feminists is to push the envelope of patriarchal traditions so women can enter and Sheherazade did just that, even in the versions in which she was executed for speaking her mind.
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Brockington, John. “The Sanskrit Epics.” Blackwell companion to Hinduism. Ed. Gavin Flood. Oxford : Blackwell Publishing, 2003.116-128. Print.
Codrescu, Andrei. Whatever Gets You through the Night: A Story of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2011. Questia. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.
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Enderwitz, Susanne. "Shahrazâd Is One of Us: Practical Narrative, Theoretical Discussion, and Feminist Discourse." Marvels & Tales 18.2 (2004): 187+. Questia. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.
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